As reported in multiple media outlets, the attorney general spoke to the American Bar Association in San Francisco last August. He was adamant about the state of America’s prisons:
“It’s clear … that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th‐century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st‐century challenges.
“And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast” (justice.gov, Aug. 12, 2013).
According to The Guardian’s Dan Roberts and Karen McVeigh, the first of the administration’s common sense reforms would include keeping “minor drug dealers” from serving “mandatory minimum sentences that have previously locked up many for a decade or more” (“Eric Holder unveils new reforms aimed at curbing U.S. prison population,” Dan Roberts and Karen McVeigh, The Guardian, Aug. 12, 2013).
Last month, Holder elaborated on this plan in testimony to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, according to Teresa Welsh of U.S. News & World Report.
“The measure,” Welsh writes, “would reduce the base offense and sentencing associated with substance quantities involved in drug dealing crimes, reducing the average sentence by 11 months.”
So the average sentence is reduced, but not by much. What’s the big deal? Well, “the change would impact almost 70 percent of all drug trafficking offenders, as many who are imprisoned for such offenses are nonviolent criminals” (“Should Sentences for Nonviolent Drug Offenders Be Reduced?” Teresa Welsh, U.S. News & World Report, March 13).
Furthermore, small as this first step is, Welsh reports, “the Sentencing Commission estimates that if adopted, the proposal would reduce the Bureau of Prisons inmate population by 6,550.”
And dig this:
“The government spends almost $83 billion each year on a prison system that has grown by 700 percent in the last 30 years. U.S. prisons are 40 percent over capacity, and half of all inmates are serving time for drug‐related crimes.”
Holder calls this a part of his “Smart on Crime” reforms, and he’s not alone in wanting to bring justice, of all things, to the boundless “War on Drugs.”
Welsh goes on: “This move has found bipartisan support in Congress, with both Democrats and Republicans sponsoring a prison reform bill also favored by the administration.”
Anything “favored” by the Obama administration usually gives me no confidence. But what are the chances that Holder’s welcome reform gets adopted?
It doesn’t look good. Welsh gives you a sense of how rigidly stiff and self‐righteous the opposition is: “The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, a group representing assistant U.S. attorneys employed by the Department of Justice, said the drug sentencing system does not need to be ‘fixed.’
“In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the group said that ‘we are winning the war against crime’ because more criminals are serving longer sentences. The association said no changes should be made to current sentencing law until more is known about how it could impact crime rates.”
The Sentencing Commission vote on the proposal is due this month. If the “Smart on Crime” reform passes, Welsh writes, it “would take effect in November” as long as Congress does not voice any opposition. We’ll see if there is sufficient bipartisan support for Eric Holder to have a somewhat more favorable place in U.S. history.
Maybe the money saved by this initiative will move it along. Brian Resnick of National Journal writes:
“Reducing the prison population by 6,550 would mean, on average, a savings of $169,238,900 a year, per data from the Urban Institute. Money aside, the human‐interest case for sentencing reform is easy to make” (“Eric Holder’s War on Drug Sentences — a Bright Spot in Obama’s Second‐Term Legacy?” Brian Resnick, National Journal, March 13).
Resnick then quotes Holder’s remarks to the Sentencing Commission:
“This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable; it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
Joining this Democratic attorney general is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who, according to Resnick, told the Conservative Political Action Conference last month:
“The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, and never give them a chance of redemption is not what America is about. Being able to give someone a second chance is very important.”
Resnick adds that “in 2012, Pew found that 84 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, ‘Some of the money that we are spending on locking up low‐risk, nonviolent inmates should be shifted to strengthening community corrections programs like probation and parole.’ ”
According to Pew, whose polling I find generally reliable, 77 percent of Republicans also agreed with the statement.
Furthermore: “Sixty‐nine percent of Americans agreed with the statement, ‘One out of every 100 American adults is in prison. That’s too many, and it costs too much.’ ”
Hillary Clinton is currently polling ahead of other potential 2016 presidential candidates — of either party. What’s her position on this?
At the very least, it would appear that Eric Holder has a firm majority of We The People behind him. In his testimony before the Sentencing Commission last month, he made this stinging point: “Today, the United States comprises just 5 percent of the world’s population, but it incarcerates almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”
Does that make you feel proud?